Saturday, 9 December 2006

Crowd control...

Whilst I was on the Lodge at church today (read: receptionist/shop assistant), I read an article that put forth a proposition that flies in the face of conventional wisdom about crowds:

James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, asserts:

"Assemble a bunch of randoms, ask for a real solution and you will get a clarity of answer born of disagreement and contest [emphasis mine]. Assemble a bunch of experts and you will get consensus, compromise and sycophantic specialisms." (
Psychologies, January 2007)

Proof for what my intuition has been telling me all along, and for those who have written that even science, that bastion of the search for pure knowledge and truth, has been directed and decided by social consensus.

Leaving science aside, my thoughts turned to the Catholic Church over the last 30 years or so, and the steady silencing of dissenting theologians: Hans Kung, Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff. To the statement of the current pope that perhaps the Church would be better and stronger if it were smaller and more narrowly focused. My heart sank.

You see, over the last 11 years of my life in the Catholic Church, something has been nagging at me. There have been flashes of truth during that time, but something has constantly niggled, even during the beauty of a high mass in Latin. A sense that it' longer fully anchored, that it's no longer whole. A feeling that the colours have been washed out and the vibrancy lost. Most conservatives would tell you that's because of Vatican II. I would argue that it is because of the silencing of dissent has eliminated the need to really look at and put forth vigorous, coherent arguments for the doctrine of the Church and change them or develop them where necessary. Conflict is essential for development, because it makes us REALLY look at WHY we believe what we profess to believe: ten years ago, I opened my mouth to defend my support of the death penalty to my friend Catherine - and suddenly thought, "I don't believe a word of what I'm about to say." The discussion, diversity and sparring that arises from conflict gives the Church life, vibrancy, fullness and depth of passion and integrity; note that Christ's interactions with the Pharisees and those who challenged him - such as the woman at the well - are the most rich, vivid, riveting parts of the Gospel. Christ died for everyone - not just those who nodded and gazed up adoringly at him: the Catholic Church is for all. Reduce ourselves to just those who believe whatever they're told, and the Church will wither and die, like the branches that that are no longer anchored to the vine.

Hard to believe? Just look at many of the blogs ("Whispers in the Loggia" is a notable exception, Rocco Palmo is incredibly thoughtful; and of course, "Godzdogz" is fabulous) that say, "I believe everything I'm told by the Church without thinking, and I will defend her to the death, hooray! Anyone who disagrees with mother Church is being led by evil. I'll pray for them. *Big smile*" You can hear the vacant, helium, Stepford voices across cyberspace as the bottles of Papal Prozac pop open. It always fascinates me how those who profess to follow Christ neglect to notice how their smug intolerance and lack of compassion nail Him to the cross.

As for arguments, here are some snippets from an argument against same-sex marriage, widely hailed as brilliant in conservative Catholic circles:

  1. To deny driving licenses to the blind does not assume that they do not deserve equal respect and consideration as persons, but that they are different from other persons in respects relevant to driving. [Well, of course, because blind people driving would put others at risk. Gay people marrying does not.]
  2. Exclusivity, dependence, duration and sexual nature are not the relevant aspects why marriage is privileged by the State. They are only the conditions of those aspects that make marriage unique: the vital function of procreation and the socializing functions of bridging the male-female divide and raising children. [You don't need to be married to procreate; I've been bridging the male-female divide all my life; and healthy, happy children can be raised by any permutation of loving adults. And why would the State legislate it for those reasons? Is the writer afraid that if it wasn't legislated, people would stop reproducing and society would cease to be? Or that everyone would be gay? Not going to happen. The state makes laws about marriage so that it can define how it takes place, define it legally, tax it...essentially, so it can control it.]
  3. The other objection is that marriages fail, to the detriment of children, spouses and families at large. But if individual marriages are in crisis, the correct inference cannot be that social policy should institutionalize this failure rather than counteract it.[No one I know has ever made that argument in favour of same sex unions, but more to the point, legalising same sex unions does NOT institutionalise the failure of heterosexual marriage - it couldn't possibly, b/c homosexuals, by definition, don't WANT to engage in heterosexual marriage. It *broadens* the definition of marriage. For example, do dark and white chocolate 'institutionalize the failure' of milk chocolate? Or do they broaden the definition of chocolate, allowing more people to enjoy it?]
If this argument - one which a bright 12 year old could take apart with a dictionary by her side - is considered one of the best in the defence of Church doctrine on this issue, then Surowiecki's point is made. In the presence of healthy argument and resistance, this could have been a coherent, well thought out piece - I'd disagree, certainly, but I would have been able to respect and appreciate it. Instead, it is long-winded, fallacious and intellectually lazy, as so much Church discussion is these days, because there is no real challenge in the greenhouse. It's one big mutual admiration society - approving of the Grima Wormtongue sycophants, dismissive of the challenging Gandalfs...and like Theoden, will wake to find itself the weaker.

So, bring back dissent - challenge is no threat to those who have the truth, and as per Edward Murrow during the McCarthy years:

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it."

Amen. And that goes for any human institution - God given or no.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On the subject of silencing theologians, I am surprised that you did not refer to any female theologians!!! A lot puzzles me about why some people are silenced - surely an open debate where we listen HONESTLY to each other and then critique arguments for validity, making sense, etc would help?